...But Where Are You Really From?
by Aida Narimani
Aida when she was 17 in Sweden
Aida is originally from Sweden with Iranian heritage she moved to England in 2009. She works as a project coordinator for a women’s organisation in Liverpool. She is an intersectional feminist who champions women’s right and particularly minority and working class women who are facing discrimination, violence and economic injustice.
Growing up in Sweden to Iranian parents I had to juggle two different and often competing cultures which left me confused about my identity. The question of identity, of the relationship between my heritage and the country which I called my home is something that I have anguished over throughout my life. I am now in my 30s and have a better sense of who I am, but the journey of learning and digging deep into myself has often been a difficult one. This is my story, of how phrases like, ‘yes, but where are you really from?’ have caused a lasting scar, and how language is so important when talking about cultural identity.
Sweden is not a country known for intolerance, however, my experience demonstrates it is not just ‘overt’ racism that can cause harm. I was born in a country where I was labelled ‘second generation’, a foreigner in the country I was born. When I was 12 my school identified that I, a ‘second-generation’ Swede struggled with spelling and grammar and should therefore be put in ‘Swedish as a second language’ class. As a 12-year-old, I never questioned it having faith that my teachers had my best interests at heart. I attended the lessons and my recollection was that I did well and my perfect fluency often confused my teacher. It was only 4 years later at the age of 16, that I found out the real reason for my struggles, I was diagnosed with dyslexia. Had this have been picked up earlier who knows how this could have changed the course of my education.
This had a profound effect on my development through to adulthood. I often think that this would have not have happened if I wasn’t who I am, if I wasn’t second-generation. I would like to say that this was an isolated incident, however, it was one of many that has caused me to second guess the motives of adults and the society around me. This has become a building block of the shame which contributed to my struggles with mental health in later life.
Once I moved away from Sweden, I was able to take control of my identity. I was no longer second generation. I was able to embrace my own culture which no longer felt at odds with my environment. The identity I built was one that was on my terms and far removed from the place where I grew up. This is not to say that England is more tolerant, I still get the same looks and comments, but I am different, I am at a place where I don’t feel the need to justify who I am, and have surrounded myself with people who do not point out my differences. This is something that I don’t think I could have happened if I had stayed in Sweden.
I am now a mother of a daughter who is mixed race, who will sadly most likely encounter similar prejudices as I have but I feel well-equipped to guide her through it. I want her to know that words hurt and can fill you with fear, anxiety and shame but the day will come where you will find a place of calm and you will gain power, resilience and pride in who you are.
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